The modern states of India and Israel were both established in the middle of the 20th century after obtaining independence from British rule. While India is one of the largest democracies in the world and Israel is one of the smallest democracies in the world, relations between the two countries have only become stronger in the last near two decades. Israel is the second largest defense supplier to India and shares strong economic, agricultural and technological advancements with India.
The relations between the two countries have become even warmer with the election of Narendra Modi from India’s BJP party in May 2014. Both government to government relations between India and Israel have intensified on many levels and so have business to business relations increased between Indian and Israeli companies. More importantly Israeli NGOs and Jewish non-profit groups involved in helping the most improvised in India have increased their support to communities in India with regards to matters of health care, education, water management, technology, agricultural advancements and even helped promote tourism to India from Israel. One such non-profit group involved on the ground with helping communities in India for the last two decades has been the “American Jewish Committee” (AJC) which is a global Jewish advocacy organization.
Through the AJC’s “Asia Pacific Institute” with offices in India, the group has tried to become a greater voice for India’s minority Jewish community with the central government but also helped to increase people to people ties between India and Israel as well. One of the AJC’s key personnel spearheading their effort in India and Sri Lanka is Arjun Hardas, a former Indian journalist. Last month Hardas was visiting Los Angeles and I had a chance to chat with him about India-Israel relations and the role the AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute has played in trying to promote various ties between India and Israel today.
The following is a portion of my conversation with Hardas…
Can you please share with us some of the work you’ve been doing while working for the AJC in India and Sri Lanka?
I have been working with the AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute since December 2014. I was the staff leader that oversaw AJC members visiting India and Sri Lanka last year and that was the first time AJC’s leadership had visited Sri Lanka before. The kind of work that I do is basically to improve relations between India, Sri Lanka and Israel as well as relations between India, Sir Lanka and the United States. We work as an NGO, business to business cooperation work is a byproduct of our efforts. As far as Sri Lanka, myself and another team member formed the ‘Sri Lanka –Jewish Friendship Association’. We have had a two programs with that group in Colombo to promote relations between Sri Lanka and Israel and the United States. For example, we had a delegation of Sri Lankan journalists to visit Israel last year and today one of the former journalists is now working with an Israeli start-up company to introduce their products to the Sri Lankan market. So that is a direct byproduct of AJC’s efforts to increase interactions between Israel and Sri Lankan.
The Jewish community is small within India’s massive population, can you please shed light on the AJC’s efforts on behalf of Jews still living in India today?
We have worked steadily to have every AJC delegation visiting India to meet with high level ministers and officials in India to help the Jewish community living in India. The last AJC delegation met with the Indian minister for Minority Affairs and asked for Jews to get minority status in India. On a state level in the Indian state of “Maharashtra” which has the largest Jewish population in India, the Jews have received official minority status. The next step for us will be to get Jews minority status within the central government. So that is a direct example of how AJC and the Asian Pacific Institute have been lobbying on behalf of Jews living in India.
How are Jews viewed by average Indians—Hindus, Muslims, Sheiks living in India?
Quite frankly the presence of Jews in India does not register with average Indians because the Jewish community is so small. The vast majority of Indians– may be 99 percent do not know of them. Those who do, know Jews because they have come across them in the Maharashtra region. There really has been no anti-Semitism in India is because of two fold; one is because there isn’t much discrimination among people of different religions in India. You have Hindus, Sheiks and Muslims all living together. Secondly Hindus who are the majority in India do not have a Judeo-Christian religious connection, so the whole idea of Jews being supposedly responsible for Christ’s death does not apply to us. The Jews are honored guests in India and more importantly they one of us and have integrated in our society of centuries. Their dress, cultures, food is all the same as an average person in India.
With the election of Mr. Mohdi and the BJP party in India two years ago, there has been a move towards warming relations with Israel? How has that impacted the Indian population and how do Indians view Israel?
The majority of Hindus and Muslims in the country are not well off and in the lower economic status. Their objective on a daily basis is where do we get our next meal from? Geo-politics and relations with Iran or Israel do not really register with them on a day to day level. So domestic matters are more important to them than foreign relations right now. For example we have great relations with Iran and also at the same time have excellent relations with Israel as well. Ties with Israel have greatly increased with the election of Prime Minister Mohdi which leads a nationalist Hindu party. However he has not in the last two years mentioned anything about favoring one particular group or religion over another in India. There is an incorrect perception among some is that Prime Minister Mohdi is from a nationalist Hindu party and therefore wants to have relations with Israel which is supposedly anti-Muslim. This is completely incorrect. They have come causes with Israel on issues of security but at the same time have come causes in trade and other matters with Iran and the Arab countries. This is a normal relationship but there are far more important issues Israel helps the Republic of India with than weapon systems ; such as health, agriculture, water recycling and technology.
You have taken delegations of Indian decision makers, leaders, journalists and others to Israel since your work with AJC began. What impact has their visit to Israel had on them?
The impact has been good because of the last delegation we took to Israel. We had Muslim journalists among them for example who came to Israel to see how Muslims lived and were treated in the country. They went to the Al- Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with a Muslim Arab guide and experienced Israel fully by seeing the great lives and freedoms Muslim citizens of Israel enjoy. So they came back with a very positive view of Israel.
Where do you see the future of Israeli-Indian relations moving towards in the future?
I honestly see the relations only improving going up or improving. Recently there was a Pew poll and much to surprise of the entire world, India more than the United States a positive of Israel– I think it was close to 66%. This is the population four times the size of United States, Ties are going up and up. The Indians have seen the benefits of Israel’s help. The Israelis do not come down to India and lecture us. They just offer the help or the technology without expecting anything in return. For example, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have a separate department called the “Mashav” department that offers agricultural assistance to countries around the world. In India right now and in the near future there are about 30 “Mashav” centers or “Center of Excellence” . Their objectives are to introduce Israeli irrigation technological and agricultural practices to Indian farmers and each center of excellence is focused on helping that particular local area. For example, at one of these centers located in the region of Punjab I met a farmer and asked him very simply what difference has the Israeli help made for you? He said my yield for the crop has increased by 50 percent and I’ve also been able to customize growing other corps according to the changing weather conditions. These are the direct benefits of Israeli help to farmers in centers of excellence all around the Punjab region. The people know that Israel is there to help them and not lecture.
You are obviously not Jewish, may I ask why you decided to work for a Jewish organization such as the AJC in this capacity in India?
Quite simply I believe in equality. I prefer that Israel gets the same treatment as any other country in the world. I am very lucky to work in an environment which is relative friendly to Israel. Not being Jewish gives me an advantage of being an honest broker and I call it as I see it. Fortunately the Jews I work with have trusted me to see the work move forward.
India faces very similar security concerns from radical Islamic terrorism from Pakistan just as Israel faces security threats from radical Islamic terrorist groups funded by Iran. Can you please explain why India still has relations with Iran despite the Iranian regime’s open sponsoring of terrorism against Israel?
India and Iran have had relations for thousands of years. The families of languages we share with Iran are very similar. So Iran in its own rite in the last 36 years as far as its relations with India has been much more than security issues. In India it’s a very strange quandary because our main area of contention has been with Pakistan which is from the Sunni strain of Islam and not the Shia. India has a sizeable Shia population and has had no issues with them. India does not have any absolutes. Just because India is friendly with Israel, it doesn’t mean it will not be friendly with other countries in the world. And I’m sure the government in Jerusalem would not want India to sever ties with Iran just because of Iran’s hostility toward Israel. There are other interests we have with Iran such as business and trade. Every country has its own place in India. At the same time the previous Indian government has said Iran should not be a nuclear power. And also let us be blunt, Iran and Israel had very warm relations before the ayatollahs came to power in Iran as a result of geo-politics. India’s interest as far as Iran have been security and having access to ports that help us with trade routes and access to Afghanistan which are blocked by Pakistan. Overall we see no reason to sever ties with Iran.
You met with AJC and other Los Angeles area Jewish community leaders while visiting L.A., what were your impressions of them and the interaction like?
The Jewish leadership have been very welcoming to us and listened to us attentively—including an Iranian Jewish leader. My interaction with the Jewish leadership was very enlightening because they realized the type of work I have done and the AJC has done in India. So it was very eye opening for them.